Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
The Nameless City, the first book in a new graphic novel trilogy by Faith Erin Hicks, is about movement. The movement of a girl freerunning across rooftops; the movement of people in a bustling city; the movement of dancers at a party; the movement of imperial powers; the subtle movement of a face forming a smile. Hicks, writer and artist, captures both the energy and the emotion of these movements in a fantasy story about the eponymous city and a friendship of two +young teenagers living in it. While The Nameless City is held back from being a truly great story due to an over-reliance on character tropes, I found I was nonetheless enjoying it so much in the moment that I had to force myself to put the book down so I did not finish it in a single day.
From the first page, Hicks establishes The Nameless City as a tangible place, a place with a people and a history. Every panel feels grounded, every scene occurring in a specific place, not a vague, ethereal setting. Hicks’ backgrounds are a huge reason for this sense of place. So many of her panels make brilliant use of foreground and background to establish the scene and give life to the city. When characters move about the city streets there are pedestrians, shops, and homes to complement the scene. By filling her panels with pedestrians and random passerby, Hicks has created a bustling, moving city. Her attention to detail in every panel speaks to the amount of time she spent working on this book. She makes it feel like a lived-in place and the story and art never felt rushed.
The Nameless City has an enjoyably slow pacing. Unlike many of the monthly comic series I have been reading, which can often feel as though they introduce and conclude plot points far too quickly, Hicks takes her time establishing the fantasy setting, the characters, and the central conflict. The Nameless City has been ruled over by an imperial occupying nation for thirty years. Thirteen-year-old Kai has just arrived in The Nameless City to begin training as a soldier when he meets Rat. Rat is an orphan street kid, native to the city. Their friendship is the center of the story. The Nameless City feels like a story of colonialism told from a kid’s perspective. The occupying nation oppresses those native to the city. As an outsider in the city, Kai struggles to understand the racist oppression and the reasons for it, while Rat deeply feels its effects.
Unfortunately, for most of the book, Kai and Rat feel too much like well-worn character tropes, rather than characters entirely specific to this story. Kai is the nerdy new kid. He doesn’t like combat and would prefer to read books. Rat is the cynical orphan who struggles to trust others. Kai and Rat feel familiar from the beginning; upon meeting them I felt like I’d seen these characters before in other stories. To the story’s detriment, Hicks takes too long to begin developing Kai and Rat beyond these character tropes. This is the first of three books in the series, and I trust Hicks will spend time in the coming sequels to make them feel more unique, but she could have made a greater effort in this one.
Despite the over-reliance on tropes in their individual characterizations, Kai and Rat’s relationship is given time to breathe. They are allowed to just be in each other’s presence or freerun across the city together, and let the unsaid advance their relationship. Hicks’ remarkable ability to animate faces allows her to say a great deal without actually having the characters speak the nuances of their feelings. Whether she has drawn a comically blank reaction like on Rat’s face below or an incredible depth of feeling seen further down, Hicks always nails the physicality of characters’ emotions.
Hicks has developed a unique style over her career that no other artist I know comes close to. She uses the unique visual nature of graphic novels to tell story and character moments. She never relies too much on dialogue to tell things; rather, her beautiful artwork shows the reader what is happening and what the characters are feeling. I was consistently floored by how lifelike the emotions on the characters’ faces felt.
Perhaps my favorite character moment in the The Nameless City is a transitory moment for Rat. We see a closeup of Rat as she stares at the imperial palace with fear. In the very next panel, her face is hardened, resolute. Hicks illustrates Rat’s internal journey beautifully, relying on the nuance of her art to give the moment an emotionally affecting power.
Hicks is able to handle both emotional subtlety and grand, fun scenes, in no small thanks to the work of the colorer, Jordie Bellaire. About halfway through The Nameless City, Kai is beginning to feel more comfortable in the city. One night he stumbles upon a street festival. For four and a half pages, Hicks uses just scene, expression, and movement to show Kai finding the party–his reluctance and wonder, his chance encounter with Rat, and them moving and dancing together as my imagination filled in the sounds of the music. Bellaire’s vibrant colors work in tandem with Hicks’ artwork to give the entire scene a kinetic energy. Throughout the book, Bellaire finds the perfect colors to bring scenes to life, from washed out moments in the early morning, to the pitch blackness of night, to the warm light of a fire. Hicks and Bellaire play off of each other perfectly, as though they’ve been working together for years.
Hicks has succeeded in creating an exciting and vibrant world that I only gained a glimpse of. I want to know more about these places and people. I want to see Kai and Rat explore The Nameless City, I want to know its secrets, and I want to see the world beyond its walls. Most of all, I want to bask in the fluid movement of Hicks’ gorgeous panels and pages. I am excited to see where she takes Kai and Rat’s journey in books two and three.
The Nameless City, published by First Second Books, releases on Tuesday, April 5. A pre-release review copy of The Nameless City was provided to The Daily Gazette by First Second Books.
All images from The Nameless City by Faith Erin Hicks.